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Simmons: Racism in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and a Failing American School System

A failing U.S. school system is partly to blame for the perpetuation of Indian mascots in sports and at schools across the country.

On January 27, the town of Tewksbury, Massachusetts held a “powwow,” according to the original headline from the Lowell Sun. After publication, the headline was changed to “Passionate Meeting” at the request of the writer, most likely due to social media complaints. The purpose of the meeting was to determine the outcome of their controversial high school mascot, the Redmen.

The public forum was filled with local residents who are 92.8-percent Caucasian with the majority being in favor of the racially based mascot. According to the Boston Globe, 14 residents wished to change the name, and 29 residents spoke in favor of keeping it. The debate spilled over into social media as the world voiced their opinions in demeaning and xenophobic ways.

These types of debates are taking place in schools across the United States. In our history, the Native communities have been fighting against these derogatory mascots since 1968. The most recent surge of events took place in 2013. The student body of a Cooperstown, New York, high school voted to abandon its r-word mascot. This, in part, inspired the Change the Mascot campaign helmed by the Oneida Nation. Change the Mascot, together with the National Congress of American Indians, has drawn relentless attention to the racist name of the Washington NFL team. Because of this campaign, high schools and colleges have reconsidered their use of degrading mascots.

Now, it is Tewksbury’s chance to do the right thing and stand on the right side of history.

Elsewhere, members of the Native American social media advocacy group Eradicating Offensive Native Mascotry (EONM) geared up to make sure the Native point of view was heard by Tewksbury community members.

Members utilized Twitter to spread facts about the harm Indian mascotting does to Native Americans. Operating under the well-known hashtag #NotYourMascot, Native American activists were met with a brewing storm of misinformation and resentment generated by the mascot supporters.

Typical of the aggressive pushback by mascot supporters, Anne Remy, who is of the Lenape Nation and fellow EONM advocate, was subjected to a deluge of hostile tweets. One tweet was written by a 16-year-old high school student of Tewksbury [the tweet has since been deleted]. “They should be lucky we named our team after them all they did was run around naked wearing feathers theyre [sic] literally retarded,” the tweet read.

As sad as this is to say, this level of discourse is the norm when Native people fight against mascots. The Twitter conversation, which included Tewksbury students and their parents, jumped from defending a mascot to expressions of outright racism. Native American women were called morons, the c-word, and told to get a life, a job, and even called “spear chuckers.”

Remy was called a “crazy cat lady,” and told to end her life. They called her a “stupid attention whore,” and was told by a Twitter user, “Who cares I’d [expletive] her c**t.”

In a world where 1 in 3 Native American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, this form of harassment is unacceptable. And yet in defense of a mascot, students and adults spewed these racist and sexist insults at anyone who opposed them. All this occurred despite claims they are “honoring” Native Americans.

How is this honor?

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Following the blatant online sexual harassment, I spoke with Remy. “Last night, during the Tewksbury mascot debate,” she said, “I was told several times my opinion did not matter because I’m not local. This is a huge misconception. Not only does it affect me, but it affects an entire continent of Native American people. These stereotypes do a disservice to Natives by promoting a false image of our culture. It’s misguided to think Natives need a mascot to honor them, especially when we keep saying its offensive.”

On January 28, an article appeared online defending the mascots, and Remy was again called out for her involvement of the debate. This time, the color of her skin was on trial. Remy is Native American and also Italian, but has a lighter complexion. The writer who goes by the name Turtle boy stated, “You’re Italian and Native American? LOL. Nah, you’re just a white woman with too much time on her hands.”

All too often, we are told that we don’t fit what an “Indian” should look like, because we are not the Disney depiction of Pocahontas. Obviously, the last several hundred years of assimilation and genocide have somehow been missed within the ignorance of his statement. I’d like to take a moment to recognize the failing school system for that. Apparently we are supposed to be wearing loincloths and living in teepees to fit their antiquated stereotypes.

This is why educational institutions that send their children out into the world are doing them a great disservice; they are not taught cultural diversity. What mascotting teaches children is that the exploitation of one race is OK if it is for the sake of sports. There is no respectful way to support your mascot when it stereotypes more than 5 million people.

Every child should be able to feel safe in their educational institution. They should be free of judgment and harassment, but all too often this is the behavior that occurs from speaking out against Native mascots. While parents are a big part to blame for our racism epidemic, our schools are also not upholding their end of the bargain to create productive members of society.

Although the town of Tewksbury may not have any Native American students within their enrollment, the neighboring towns may have. This is not only an issue within one school, but every school Tewksbury comes into contact with during their sporting events. This high school has a responsibility to the entire community to make sure their halls are free of stereotypes. In my experience, opposition of Native mascots brings out deeply hidden racist skeletons – ones that lay dormant for years and generations until they are exposed.

As Frank Waln, the Lakota hip hop artist recently tweeted, “Americans will fight harder to defend native mascots than they will to defend the lives of actual native ppl whose land they live on.”

It is 2016, and we need to hold our educational institutions to a higher standard. No Native person, much less a youth who attends school with students like these, should encounter the wrath of this type of opposition, especially with our suicide rate as high as it is today. Because of this, we are strengthened in our resolve to eradicate these types of stereotypes in a learning institution.

A major concept in the Native community is that Native women were placed on this earth to protect all our children. We will do what it takes to protect our own from this kind of degradation and harm. Shame on you Tewksbury. As easy as it is to stereotype 566 Federally recognized tribes, we can easily say the same for your residents. Doesn’t feel very nice now does it?

Martie Simmons

Martie Simmons is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, a combat veteran, a certified HR Professional. She has her Bachelors in Business Administration, and is a mother of two. She currently resides in El Paso, Texas.